By Tim Harfmann and Melissa Enaje
Usually On St. Patrick’s Day, the bells ringing from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan are heard by more than 100,000 marchers and at least a million spectators along one and a half miles of Fifth Ave. But for the first time in more than 250 years, the annual parade was canceled amidst concerns of COVID-19. The St. Patrick’s Day Mass was live-streamed since all Masses in the Archdiocese of New York were canceled since March 14.
That didn’t stop the parade’s board of directors and committee members from making an effort to continue the New York City tradition that dates back to 1762. The sound of bagpipes still echoed in the early morning March 17 as a small clan of marchers were led from the 69th Regiment Armory up to Fifth Ave.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, took to Twitter and addressed the faithful.
“I think you would share my sentiment today on St. Patrick’s Day, we need him to drive out snakes today,” Cardinal Dolan said. “I’m talking about the snake of the coronavirus which is hurting and harming and even taking the lives of so many of our brothers and sisters. But I’m also speaking about the toxins, the poisonous snakes of our own selfishness, our own fear, our own judgment of people, or own sin.”
Outside of St. Patrick’s cathedral, the most popular spot on March 17, the streets were empty. Instead of floats on the parade route, there was a sparse amount of taxis with drivers wearing face masks. Instead of bagpipers and Irish dancers, a person would stop in front of the church, take a picture on their phone, and keep walking. The only evidence that hinted at some sort of Irish Catholic heritage was the flag of Ireland waving on top of the cathedral that kept its doors open to the public for private prayer.
A small group of visitors from Scotland told the Tablet that they planned their New York trip just to attend the parade, not knowing it would be canceled. Denise and Mark Madden, as well as two of their friends, visited the cathedral and wore festive green shirts with shamrocks on them.
“We came, lit a candle, said a prayer for our own family, for ourselves, for everybody in New York and everybody back home,” Denise said.
The group said they’re taking the necessary sanitary precautions as they go sightseeing around New York – washing their hands and being careful. Denise said they’ll still continue the spirit of the St. Patrick’s Day parade by buying beverages and celebrating at their hotel.
“We’ll raise a glass to St. Patrick and everybody else back home and everybody else that couldn’t make it to the parade,” she said. “We’ll go back, we’ll put some Irish music on, have a glass and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day ourselves.”
Celebrating in closed quarters was their only alternative. A couple of pubs close to the cathedral that usually overflow with crowds during St. Patrick’s Day were closed. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced March 19 that all restaurants and bars were limited to only takeout as a way to force New Yorkers to practice social distancing amid the coronavirus outbreak. NYPD told its officers they could ticket and even arrest restaurant or bar owners who didn’t follow the rules that banned city nightlife and dine-in meals.
It was also the first time Father Christopher Heanue didn’t participate in parade festivities. Father Heanue heads the Irish Ministry in the Brooklyn Diocese. He said that even though the huge celebration won’t take place, the silver lining is that Catholics can still honor the day through their faith.
“I think that people can have private devotions today in a particular way,” Father Heanue said. “It raises the question to us, what makes St. Patrick’s Day an important day? Is it just a day for drinking and celebrating or is it a day to recall the Catholic traditions of Ireland and the great works that the Catholic Church has done in Ireland and all over the world? It’s a day to evangelize in honor of St. Patrick himself. It helps to put things in focus.”
Outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, three men, also wearing shades of green and Irish caps, said they marched in the annual parade for years. They were glad the cathedral was open on the day that is intrinsically a part of their identities. Kevin Einsmann grew up attending St. Andrew Avellino, Flushing; Marcus Sverko from St. Sebastian’s, Woodside and Father Steven Ryan, S.D.B., grew up in Staten Island. The day was bittersweet for Father Ryan. The Salesian priest is the vice provincial of the St. Philip Province and a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. He held onto his faith and the witness of St. Patrick as a beacon of hope during these times.
“Well there is a sense of sadness and grief that we have to face this situation, but there’s also, because of our faith and because of St. Patrick’s message to us, there’s hope,” Father Ryan said. “We can’t let any obstacle, including this coronavirus stop us from proclaiming Christ … St. Patrick would not stop.”